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Interview With Dan Rather

Aired March 12, 2004 - 21:00   ET


LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, Dan Rather, the last man to interview Saddam Hussein, is back in Baghdad this week and marking his 23rd year as the network news anchor on CBS. Dan Rather for the hour in Baghdad, nearly one year after the war began, next on "LARRY KING LIVE."
It's always a great pleasure to welcome him to "LARRY KING LIVE." He's Dan Rather; he's on the scene in Baghdad. He arrived a week ago today, and scheduled to leave this weekend.

What is it like to go back?

DAN RATHER, ANCHOR, "CBS EVENING NEWS": Well, Larry, there's so many tremendous differences, some positive, some negative, that the last time I was here in September. As I think you know, I've been here -- I believe it's seven times over the last two years. Of course, that included a number of visits just before and just during the major ground offensive. But there have been so many changes.

I guess the biggest change, Larry, if you were here, I think the biggest thing you would notice is freedom. I know that will strike some people as corny or cliche but it's what you feel. And it's what the Iraqi people, by and large, feel.

They -- most Iraqis alive today have never known anything approaching freedom. And just the fact that Iraqis can speak out, that they can say what they want to say, is probably the biggest change that's happened over the last year.

Now, since the last time I was here, what's changed is they do have a new interim constitution, and the security situation is unquestionably better. Which is not to say that it's terrific. There are a lot of terrible things happening around the country, but the security situation has improved at least somewhat.

KING: Dan Rather, of course, is the anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News." One of the best reporters ever in electronic journalism in this country.

You described this trip in an interview with "USA Today" to Iraq as a gut check, " there, in what I would call a low but constant hum in the interior of almost every American." Can you elaborate?

RATHER: Well, I will elaborate. As you know, Larry, I'm dedicated to the proposition that to be a good reporter you need to walk the ground when you can. And in a situation as complex, as complicated as Iraq, and as dangerous as Iraq is, dangerous for the security of the United States, dangerous for everything from the economic security to the sheer actual safety of our children and grandchildren, Iraq is a tremendous focal point right now.

And I just don't -- I'm not comfortable myself reporting on Iraq, trying to analyze what's happening in Iraq, without coming here fairly often and walking the ground, doing what reporters do, get around, talk to people, knock on doors, watch, listen, move around as much as you can, and absorb all that and take it back with me. I think it makes me a better anchor person. I know it makes me a better reporter.

KING: Why -- there's more bloodshed today. An aide to an important Shiite cleric was shot today. Why does that continue?

RATHER: Well, it continues because this is such a deeply complex situation, and because there's been an almost indescribable transition that the Iraqi people are trying to get through and, at the same time hold their country together. Now, as you and I have discussed many times before, unquestionably -- and nobody -- nobody in Iraq questions it -- the United States military is the greatest military power on Earth. Probably the greatest in history in terms of its abilities.

And one cannot say enough about our young men and women here in uniform. And, for that matter, those civilian Americans here who are trying to help.

However, this is a large country. It's complicated by religion, ethnicity, cultural differences and history. So while the United States military is the one part of the country right now -- the only thing in this country that Iraqis both fear and respect is a soldier, an airman or a marine of the U.S. military.

Previously, they had not just a dictatorial government, but in many ways a totalitarian government and leader. But they feared and respected that and that only. And they had for a very long time.

Now, as I say, the only people in the country really feared and respected, the combination of those two, are U.S. soldiers. Just below that level, there are all kinds of factions and people in this country jockeying for power. Everything from outsider who've come in to make this a battleground against the hated Americans, to Iraqis who simply resent what they see as occupiers on their soil.

And in that deadly molten mix comes all this violence. And I wish I could say, Larry, that the end to major violence in Iraq is right around the corner. It would appear to be, you know, just ahead of us. Based on my own reporting, I cannot in good conscience say that.

This is going to be a very long road in Iraq, this road they've started on to democracy and freedom. It's by no means certain that they're going to get very far down the road. But as they travel it, there will continue to be a lot of danger and violence, and, yes, more Americans are going to die here. Americans will be dying here, in my judgment, for as long as we stay. It's entirely possible, entirely probable that there can be a reduction in the violence, a reduction in the kind of killing we've seen even in these last few days. But I frankly don't think that's going to happen until the economic situation gets somewhat better.

Unemployment is the key to better security. It's not the only thing that will help improve it. But if you've begun to get the young men, especially, of what I call fighting age, 18 to 20-years-old, to about 35 years of age, if some way can be found to get them working that hasn't been found yet, then that is the key to a significantly increased security.

KING: Dan, when they signed the -- and you were there when they signed the interim constitution -- things seemed copacetic. Why wouldn't that have quieted things down?

RATHER: Well, because, number one, it is an interim constitution. It's just a beginning. Number two, there's a widespread perception which has, let's face it, and let's be honest about it, rooted in truth that this constitution was brought along by the Americans. It was basically put forward by the Americans. The Americans were the biggest single factor in getting in written and having it written the way it is.

I know that there are people who are going to argue with that assessment, and maybe I'm wrong about it. But this I'm not wrong about, that there are many, many Iraqis -- and I'm prepared to say the majority of Iraqis, although I haven't run a poll on it, who believe that. So while this interim constitution -- in my judgment, it was a momentous occasion when it was approved and signed by the council, the current -- I can't say ruling council, but the council that's been put in place.

It may turn out be an historic moment. But because it's an interim constitution, because it's so widely viewed as being an American thing, it hasn't settled things down very much.

Now, as the months go along, the hope is that this will fuel some of the hopes of the Iraqi people. They'd begin to see with better optimism what's ahead for them if they'd use this interim constitution to eventually get a constitution. Not interim, but their own constitution, and begin to get elected officials.

But all of that right now seems a long way off. And let me note, Larry, because I think it's something you'll likely be talking about as the time draws near, right now the very capable and extremely hard- working Paul Bremer, who is our -- you know, in effect, an ambassador here, Paul Bremer has done a great job here. But he says he's walking out.

The plan is for him to get out on June 30. On July 1, what he has been doing ostensibly is going to be turned over to this Iraqi council.

Almost every Iraqi I've talked to -- there have been a couple of exceptions -- but almost every Iraqi I've talked to is worried about that. Worried, well, is it happening too soon? And their biggest concern is, well, when Bremer goes, who's going to be the authority? Who's going to lead the country, and how?

Those questions have not been answered. And as each day goes by, Iraqis worry about it. So I think that's certainly a date to look forward to, and also to think seriously about in terms of what comes after that.

We're still here in Iraq -- there remains the possibility that the country could split apart, they could have a civil war. You know, the three, Sunni, Shiite, Kurd, main general factions. I think the interim constitution reduces the possibility of civil war and the country splitting apart. But I think it would be unrealistic not to keep that in our minds as at least a remote possibility if things don't begin to gel.

KING: We'll take a break. And as we go to break, here is Dan -- a clip of Dan -- and a portion of an interview he conducted in Iraq with the aforementioned Paul Bremer.

We'll be right back.


RATHER: Excuse me, I hear what (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to be a siren. Is that something we should be concerned about?

PAUL BREMER, COALITION PROVISIONAL AUTHORITY ADMINISTRATOR: Well, we should probably head for the basement.

RATHER: You think so?

BREMER: Well, that's what it usually means. Somebody will tell us if they want us to go. Usually it means there's a mortar attack or a rocket attack.

RATHER (voice-over): Within minutes Ambassador Bremer was told to leave.

BREMER: You know we have elements of al Qaeda and -- I guess we're leaving.

RATHER: It's a regular and, he says, not very threatening part of Ambassador Bremer's life.




RATHER: The soil of this country is flattered with the blood of Americans and Iraqis. Its fertile ground, the crew of Medicine Man 71, a Black Hawk medical chopper that is part of the largest ongoing Medevac operation since the Vietnam War. In an ER room the size of the SUV cabin, medical specialist Nathan Snell from Denmark, Wisconsin has the life of Sergeant Kenneth Grady from Lebanon, Missouri in his hands.


KING: We're back with Dan Rather on the scene in Iraq, celebrating 23 years this week, in fact, as the top anchor slot at CBS.

By the way, just as an aside, time go fast? Does it feel like 23 years?

RATHER: No, it doesn't feel that way. It never feels that long to me, Larry.

You know, about that, it just -- you know, I wake up every day very thankful I've got this job. And it doesn't feel like that at all.

KING: All right. You spent some time in Iraq with a medevac unit. And we understand choppers only have red cross for protection. One, why did you do that?

RATHER: Well, it was my -- it's been my experience that, first of all, if you want to get anywhere near the action, if you want to get a real sense of what the level or what the intensity of combat is, you spend time with medevac units, because they go where people are dead, wounded and ill. So that's the reason we spent the time with them.

Let me say that yesterday, Larry, on the road, just west of Baghdad, we saw the medevac team in action. We were on the road where, just ahead of us, a roadside bomb went off against an 82nd U.S. Army convoy. And just as we rolled up, the medevac helicopter was arriving; we saw them carrying away three soldiers on three stretchers.

But the medevac people were tending to the soldiers on two of those stretchers. They weren't attending to the soldier on the third. And I said to myself as we saw that, "I hope I'm wrong, but it probably means that at least one of those soldiers is dead." And indeed it did.

One was killed almost instantly. Another died if not on the medevac itself, just as they arrived at the hospital. And the third 82nd Airborne paratrooper is still in serious condition.

I mention it because we had done the piece on the medevac people earlier in the week. And it's so much in my mind. And it was just a coincidence, but it was a sobering one, to see the people that we had done the story on earlier in the week actually do their job.

They got there very, very quickly. This was a case of -- I think this is typical of the way some of the injuries and deaths among the well over 500 Americans who have been killed here happens. The 82nd Airborne, Larry, as you know, is beginning to hand off their responsibilities in part of the Sunni Triangle -- in this case, just west of Baghdad -- to the 1st U.S. Marine Division. And the 82nd Airborne soldiers were on a mission to help a U.S. Marine convoy.

And it was on that mission they made a stop at a certain place in the road. And when they did, what appeared to me to be a command- detonated mine at the side of the road. I'm not sure that's what it was, which is to say, somebody off in the distance by wire set this thing off.

And it was at just the right level. If it had been one foot lower or one foot higher, it probably wouldn't have blown through the window of that Humvee. But it was a combination of a sophisticated bit of good planning and some luck on the part of the people who put the bomb there that was placed just in the right place. They set it off at just the right time, with those tragic results.

I go through that in order to give people an idea of -- they say, well, how are these people being killed and wounded, how are our soldiers being killed and wounded. That's one of the more prevalent ways that these injuries and deaths occur.

KING: How about the story on -- you did the story on Fern Holland, who's fighting for women's rights. She was killed earlier this week. And now the suspects are Iraqi police. Does that surprise you?

RATHER: No, it does not surprise me, Larry. And, as you know, when this story was first reported, it was reported this way, that two Americans -- and that would be Bob Zangus (ph), along with Fern Holland -- who are civilians working for the United States government, trying to do good work -- among other things, that Fern Holland was passionate about trying to help Iraqi women.

They came up to what they thought was a roadblock. Now, in the early reporting of the story, it was wire services and our own reports that would appear they came up to a fake checkpoint and that assassins dressed in Iraqi police uniforms -- in other words, masquerading as Iraqi police -- at the fake checkpoint, murdered them in cold blood, drove off with their vehicle, with the bodies still in the vehicle, indicating that it was a kill-for-hire deal because they had to have the bodies in order to show the people who were paying them to do this work that they had actually killed these people.

That's the way the story was first reported. But as you know, Larry, over the years, frequently the first things you hear are not right, or at least become open to other suspicions.

Now, today's storyline on this is that the evidence is beginning to mount that the people who did the killing actually were part of the Iraqi police force. They were taken into the police force and did this terrible deed because they're tied in with some of the Sunnis who so vehemently object to the American presence here.

We don't know the final line on this story because they don't have it completely done yet. But that's the way the investigation has turned. You say, well, was I surprised? No, I wasn't surprised, because the effort to reconstitute an Iraqi police force has had to be done rapidly.

They vetted people as best they can. But you know when they hire the number of people, 10,000 people I think it is, and many thousands of people, when they do it and they do it this quickly in this kind of environment, there are some bad people going to slip through the cracks. And I don't question for a moment that the overwhelming majority of people who are now operating as Iraqi police are good, trying to do regular police work. But it wouldn't surprise me if this is not the last time that this kind of thing happens, because they have hired a lot of people in a short period of time.

KING: So then it becomes a question of inner security and whom do you trust.

RATHER: Well, as I say, the security, in my judgment, has improved. But it's a long way from being anywhere close to acceptable. And whom do you trust? Not very many people.

It's tempting to say, well, this is the Middle East and you can't trust anybody. I'm not saying that. What I am saying is you have a war -- ravaged, war-torn country here, still in the process and mind you still in the fairly early stages of trying to recover. And in that situation, you're going to have all kinds of betrayals, double- crosses.

Things are not going to be what they appear to be, whether it's somebody dressed in an Iraqi police uniform, a civil defense uniform, or somebody in the interim constitution-formed government who is not operating as you think they're operating. It's a -- one reason I welcome the opportunity to talk about this is an almost desperate effort to get through to the American people that, while what we're doing here -- we have made progress.

There's been considerable progress on a number of fronts, but we shouldn't kid ourselves about how far there still is to go and how complicated the situation is. That we've made a commitment here in Iraq, and we've said we're going to see it through.

Now, the people who don't wish us well are testing, constantly testing our staying power. And that's what's on the line now. And it will be on the line for a long time to come here.

KING: Right back with Dan Rather after this.


RATHER: Here's what we know and all we know. There is a convoy just back there behind this first vehicle, is a Humvee, which is described by someone who's seen it as, quote, "having the glass, the windows blown out." Over here to my right is a small building, and there appear to be prisoners at least being questioned about what happened. The story that unfolds is a familiar one. An IED, improvised explosive device, public enemy number one for soldiers in Iraq, has detonated on a highway near Ramadi. A notorious flashpoint.




RATHER: Sanchez is on the move again, this time for a short helicopter ride over Basra. Suddenly, anti-missile devices are fired, after a cockpit alarm goes off. The pilots take immediate evasive, drastic action fearing an attack. Later, they said it was a false alarm.

(on camera): I don't know about you, but when the helicopters took that evasive action, the pucker factor went up.

GEN. RICARDO SANCHEZ: Yes, sir. That was an exciting helicopter ride, sir, on about three different occasions that we shared.


KING: We're back with our special guest for the night, Dan Rather, on the scene in Baghdad.

Let's talk about a couple of people and your appraisals of them. You spent time with General Ricardo Sanchez, including a rather hairy chopper ride. What was your read on that?

RATHER: Well, General Ricardo Sanchez, who's a great story, by the way, Larry -- if you ever get a chance to have him on the program, you couldn't go wrong with him. You know, he was born down in south Texas. He did not speak English, only Spanish, until he went to school.

And he's made himself an outstanding student. And now he's made himself an outstanding flag-ranked U.S. Army officer.

Ricardo Sanchez, the general, is in charge of ground forces in Iraq. And we took a trip with him down to the south of Iraq, down where the British troops are in charge, under General Sanchez's overall command. So we went down by a fixed-wing aircraft flown by National Guard members, and then while we were there we did take that helicopter ride, which did get hairy in the extreme.

But what General Sanchez was looking for down there was a sense of how things were going. And then he wanted to talk to the British about how to better close the border with Iran.

This is a somewhat under-reported story, Larry, that the American officials here, military and otherwise, are increasingly concerned about the Iranian mullahs trying to influence events inside Iraq. And also, trying to, in effect, signal the United States government, listen, you may be able to do, at least eventually, what you've set out to do in Iraq, but don't forget you probably won't be able to do that unless in one way or the other you work a little better with us, in a broad, general way trying to send that signal.

Now, on the ground, for General Sanchez and those who are working with him, the problem is real in that they think, number one, that some Taliban numbers and al Qaeda members have been using Iran as a place to get across from Afghanistan and come into Iraq. That other al Qaeda and terrorist outfits and those connected with the mullahs who control Iran, really control the country, have been coming in here. And the border with Iran is really porous.

It's an extremely long border. No one's ever going to be able to close it off. And neither General Sanchez or anybody else believes that's possible. But what they want to do is do a little better job of -- at least a little better job of patrolling that border, and at special entry places.

They know the places where people most often come across. They want to have at least somewhat better security.

So one of the things General Sanchez did in going down south was talked to the Brits down there about how better to do that. I will say, we sat in on a meeting, and, Larry, the British general, General Stewart, was very candid, in which he said, in effect, we'll try to help you do this, and certainly we agree it needs to be done. But let's not kid ourselves that there is a limit to how much we can control the people who come into Iraq from Iran.

There is a companion problem of people getting across from Syria, which is also considered to be quite serious. But I would say Iran is the biggest concern in this area. And that's one of the reasons that General Sanchez went south.

KING: What happened on the helicopter?

RATHER: Well, on the helicopter, after General Sanchez had talked to the ranking British general there, he wanted to go over and take a boat ride at the very base -- you know, Basra is the only port opening to the Persian Gulf. It's the second largest city in the country. And around Basra, you know, the Euphrates and Tigris rivers come together well above Basra, and then they flow down into the Persian Gulf.

And in that waterway, which was a battleground during the Iran- Iraq War during the 1980s, it's a graveyard for ships. And General Sanchez wanted to go down and see it. It's also one of those areas which borders up fairly close to Iran. So we wanted to take a boat ride there.

We got aboard the helicopter. These were British helicopters. We got aboard the helicopter, and as we were flying fairly low over Basra and the outskirts of Basra, two things suddenly happened.

One, frankly I thought and some other people in the helicopter thought we heard ground fire. We could have been mistaken about it. Then almost immediately, the flares went out from the helicopter. You know, bang, bang, bang.

Three flares, and the helicopter pilot took what can only be described as very drastic evasive action. He turned the helicopter almost on its side. Not quite on its side, almost on its side, and flew off. And that gets your attention.

It got General Sanchez's attention, as he told me later -- he acknowledged that the pucker factor on that was pretty high. When we got down on the ground, the pilots speculated that what had happened was that perhaps there was some reflections from the water or from something else on the ground that had set off automatically the helicopter's flares.

Those flares are designed in case it's a ground-to-air missile that it takes the missiles off their targets. So a certain system goes into effect. And when something picks up on the ground, they go off automatically.

Whether there was ground fire at the helicopter, I don't know. But I do know, therefore, those seconds when the pilot was taking evasive action that you found yourself sucking air pretty deeply and pretty steadily.

KING: Boy. We'll take a break, come back, and ask Dan Rather about the morale of the troops right after this.


RATHER (voice-over): Destination today. Basra. 300 hundred miles south of Baghdad. Iraq's second city.

General Andrew Stewart (ph) commands the British forces based here. There have been few insurgent attacks against his troops. The area is dominated by a Shiite community that welcomed the invasion.

Stewart like General Sanchez (ph) is trying to give more power to the local Iraqi security forces but he has little hope they will reach Western standards any time soon.

GEN. ANDREW STEWART, COMMANDER, BRITISH TROOPS: We're trying to make these police not only operate properly but also be politically accountable to the people and not to themselves.




RATHER (voice-over): Emerging from the shadows of the night, the patrol engages local shopkeepers. Not with weapons but with Arabic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Salaam al-leikum (ph).

RATHER: The platoon moves on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ...I would think that might get a little touchy from time to time.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You've just got to make sure that some people are watching while some people are talking. That's the key thing right there.

RATHER: Watching the garbage for explosive devices is another life-protecting necessity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of the techniques that the enemy has used atimes is, you know, they'll conceal explosive devices and hide them in garbage, they'll hide them in a lot of different things.

RATHER: But Captain Yours (ph) says his patrols are getting easier as Iraqis become more confident of the security situation.


KING: We're back with the anchor and always welcomed managing editor of the "CBS Evening News." Dan Rather on the scene in Iraq.

What's the morale of the troops?

RATHER: Larry, overall and in the main, the morale of the troops is amazingly, to me, almost astonishingly good. Given what their day- to-day, night-by-night reality is, very good.

Having said that, the level of excellent morale depends somewhat on where you are in the country, how long this soldier, marine or airman has been in the country, and whether they are regular or part of the National Guard or Reserves. It's very hard to generalize about morale. But having said that morale is excellent -- and that's true -- I think anyone who was here, comes here even for a few days, looks around and talks to troops, particularly talks to captains and sergeants and people down low in the enlisted ranks, my own experience is that captains and sergeants, more than anybody else in the military, not only will they tell you the truth, but they'll tell it to you with the bark off.

But if you travel around, there is at least a low-level hum in morale that could get worrisome as time goes along. And it's made up of the following factors.

First of all, the length of time an American soldier, marine or airman is expected to be in a country. They're told when they come here now, you should be prepared for one year in the country. The British rotate their troops every six months, and the U.S. troops know that. So that's a factor. It's a long time in here.

Secondly, some -- by no means all -- but some -- and it's not confined to just guardsmen and reservists, although it tends to be more so with them -- feel that they were misled about how long they'd have to be here. Some who have been brought back for a second time, they have a specialty that's particularly needed in the country, say, well, wait a minute, I gave my sacrifice. There's remarkably little complaining, or, to put it straightforward, bitching and whining down in the ranks. But there is this low hum of morale which is a little more than just, well, you know, soldiers wherever they are in the world are going to complain. And the longer we are here, and the more the U.S. military gets stretched -- and let's face it, they are stretched pretty thin given Afghanistan, what we're trying to do here in Iraq, and other obligations around the world -- I think in some morale is good. It's very good overall.

But if you are a young soldier who's been here a long time and you're in the Sunni Triangle, and one of the tougher sections of the Sunni Triangle, the most dangerous part of the country, and if you're in one of the more dangerous parts of the most dangerous section of the country, your morale can begin to sag a bit. What keeps soldiers, airmen and marines, going here, Larry -- and we need to know this in ourselves -- is that they do believe that almost everybody in the United States supports them. And that's really important to them.

They understand that a lot of people have questions about whether we went to war at the right place, in the right time, for the right reasons. We know we're in a presidential campaign, there's going to be a debate, a national debate about it, as there should be. They understand all that. But they constantly -- they sort of have their ear cocked to see whether support at home is bedrock solid for them with an understanding of how much they're having to sacrifice.

One other thing about morale, Larry, is that you do hear soldiers say from time to time that we're in a war, we're in what is called a transgenerational (ph) war. It's going to be a long war. And that the amount of sacrifice being asked is uneven among Americans.

A version of, look, I'm sacrificing as a soldier, and I'm glad and I'm proud to do it. But I look around, and I don't see a lot of other Americans even being asked to sacrifice.

I want to report as accurately as I can. I probably hear that kind of talk even among the best of our soldiers, the most committed, the most absolutely gung-ho of them. When I say there's a low hum, that's a pretty large part of the low hum.

KING: Considering the Iraqi citizenry, is there much talk about Saddam Hussein?

RATHER: Remarkably little, Larry. It surprises me that you can have Iraqis talk about Saddam Hussein, but almost always one has to raise the subject with them. You don't hear Iraqis sort of musing about, well, I wonder where old Saddam Hussein is, or I wonder what he's doing.

I had lunch today with one of the people who was a translator for us when we did our interviews with Saddam Hussein. One in the summer of 1990, and the other just before the war started last year. The first time I've seen him when he wasn't translating for Saddam Hussein. I had a long conversation with him. And even he was not that interested in, you know, what's happening with Saddam Hussein. He had some ideas of what it was like for Saddam Hussein in prison.

But Iraqis, they're not -- certainly not fixed on it. They don't actually talk about it very much. For them, Saddam Hussein is in the past, he's gone, and good riddance.

KING: We'll take a break and be back with more of Dan Rather on the scene in Baghdad. Don't go away.


RATHER: At this base, Marines are replacing the outgoing 82nd Airborne.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it's good to see the Marines here, sir.

RATHER: What do they want to know most?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're very particular about the ID's, how they get set up, how do you look out for them.

RATHER: There was something else the newly arrived Marines to look out for today.

Let me ask your partner over here, well, I'm not sure what to make of that. You tell me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Could be incoming, roadside bombs. Don't know.

RATHER: It was incoming. Marines started to scramble. A mortar round left one Marine and a civilian contractor injured.



KING: We're back with Dan Rather, the anchor and managing editor of "CBS Evening News."

What's the prospect of a Shiite fundamentalist government there?

RATHER: Well, one would have to say, to be both accurate and fair to the facts, that that's a working possibility. I stop short of saying that it's a probability, but it's a working possibility.

Reasons, the Shiites represent about 60 percent of the overall population of the country. Secondarily, one of the Shiite leaders, Ayatollah Sistani, the best known and one of the most influential, if not the most influential, Shiite leader in the country, is a very difficult man to read.

He ostensibly has given support to the new interim constitution. But then immediately after it was signed, said he had -- and this is not a direct quote -- but pretty much he had deep and abiding concerns about some parts of it.

Let's put it this way, if there is to be a religious government of Iraq, it most likely is going to be a Shiite government. You simply can't rule it out.

Now, that stated, Larry, the signs have been encouraging lately that even Ayatollah Sistani, who's an Iranian by birth -- he's lived in Iraq for a long, long while. He doesn't see anybody, by the way. Paul Bremer has never seen him.

Wow, there was a tremendous explosion there. What we're told from time to time that they set off captured ammunition. Let us hope that's what it is. But our little broadcast area here shook when that was happening.

Can we have somebody check on that, please? Thank you. Check downstairs. Give a telephone call. Let's find out.

Sorry, Larry.

KING: Sure.

RATHER: That was a pretty big boom-boom.

We were talking about the possibility of a Shiite government, and I was saying there had been some encouraging signs lately that even this Ayatollah Sistani, that Paul Bremer has never talked to him. Practically no one talks to him.

He talks to nobody. And it's said that he only speaks Farsi, the language of Iranians, certainly better educated Iranians.

There's some automatic weapons fire ripping off in the distance as well. I'm not suggesting, Larry, that anything big is going on here, but we had a big boom, followed by a little automatic weapons fire. So we'll try to keep you posted on what, if anything, that turns out to be.

So now, trying to get back to what we were talking about before, the possibility of a Shiite takeover, you know, you can't rule it out down the road. But so far, I think that if Paul Bremer were here on the program he'd say, listen, so far, so good. And the Americans here, both civilian and military, are absolutely convinced that isn't going to happen.

And they believe it isn't going to happen because they think that the majority of Iraqis, whether they be Shiite, Sunni or Kurd, do want the country to hold together. That they don't want a civil war, they don't want the country to split in two or split three ways. For one thing, they think it would make Iraq, what is now Iraq, much more vulnerable to Iran and perhaps even Turkish desires for territory and control.

So that's where it is. But I want to be careful and say that this is such a fluid situation, Larry. It's -- believe me, you, it's muggy, it's foggy. It's very fungeable (ph) and very volatile. And so when you talk about a possible religious government eventually taking over Iraq, you can't rule it out. But the signs, so far, in the post ground combat Iraq, are at least fairly promising that that won't happen.

KING: Did you get any further word on what happened in Madrid and who's to blame?

RATHER: Yes, what a terrible story. I have no idea, Larry. This story hit like the proverbial hammer to the heart here. And any and all Americans who lived through 9/11, wherever they are in the world -- and that includes this one -- find themselves with -- in sympathy and solidarity with Spain and our friends in Spain.

The word got around to Iraq rather slowly, because communication, particularly what we could call mass media, does not really exist in this country to this day. So the word got around here in Iraq fairly slowly. The word now has permeated pretty well throughout the country and the population.

And for whatever it may be worth, of course the minds here go to, well, probably al Qaeda or some organization, some Islamic-connected organization connected with al Qaeda. But that's not based on knowing much. It's just based on their own experience of what happens in this part of the world, that is to say Iraq and the Middle East.

I don't know Spain particularly well, but anybody's who's traveled around knows the history of the Basque separatist movement. And for whatever it may be worth, I think it will be a very long time before they can determine, if indeed they can ever determine, whether it was, in fact, connected to the Basque separatist movement or whether it was something, an Islamic terror group, or perhaps a combination of both.

KING: We'll be back with our remaining moments with Dan Rather, giving us an hour tonight from Baghdad. We'll touch a couple of other bases.

Don't go away.


RATHER: Out here, you learn the lessons of peacekeeping the hard way, like finding out that getting in and out of your vehicle gives gunmen the time to make you a target.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We never dismount on a main street. Those are some of the most dangerous times, proven through, you know, enemy contact over the past several months, when you mount and dismount.



KING: We're back with Dan Rather, our remaining moments. He's on the scene in Baghdad. Let's touch a couple of areas, domestic. And we'll be calling on Dan a lot during the months ahead.

I did the next to last debate; you did the last debate among the Democratic candidates. We now have a candidate in place. What's your read on Kerry, and who do you think might be his choice to be vice president?

RATHER: Well, Senator Kerry obviously is going to be the Democratic nominee, unless something cataclysmic happens. He's in the period now where he has to spend a great deal of time raising money, having spent a great deal of money to nail down the nomination. And that leaves him in an especially vulnerable period, that President Bush and the Republican campaign effort, in effect, holding its fire until it knew whom the nominee was going to be. Now, by knowing who the nominee is going to be, they'll keep up a constant drum beat of what they consider to be Senator Kerry's vulnerabilities.

As for his running mate, I have no idea who his running mate is going to be. You know, we can go down the general list of names.

Certainly, John Edwards, the young senator from North Carolina, who proved during the primary and caucus campaign that he has an unusual ability to connect with people, to directly connect with people. A very good orator, an excellent debater, would be a strong candidate. But I think it would be a mistake to jump to any conclusions that Edwards is going to be his running mate, Larry.

These decisions tend to be made by candidates once they get a nomination very slowly and deliberately. Yes, Senator Kerry must be tempted to name his vice presidential running mate choice, his own choice early, because that way he would have a team in place. On the other hand, he'd be giving up the chance to get what usually happens at a convention.

Once you name your vice presidential running mate at the convention, you get a little jump in the polls. So he might be giving that up.

But there's a long list of people he may want to consider. You say, well, on what basis is he going to make this judgment? I think that he'll consider very carefully strategically how he's going to approach the election, Larry.

Now, what I mean by that is, if Senator Kerry makes the judgment that he and the Democrats are not likely to carry any southern states or any big southern border states with the possible exception of Florida, then he might say to himself, well, the thing for me to do is to pick somebody from Florida. Senator Graham's name comes to mind.

On the other hand, if he says to himself, you know what, I don't think my chances are very good of winning any southern state, including Florida, so what I better do is concentrate on winning the industrial -- what we used to call the industrial Northeast, California, the far Pacific Northwest, Washington, Oregon, and try to pick up a few western states. And if I can do that, I can win the election. And it's true. Mathematically, he doesn't have to win any southern state, because Al Gore, as you know, carried no southern state. But if he had won New Hampshire, or West Virginia, or even Ohio, where Vice President Gore gave up so early, well, he would have been president.

So here's the point, that Kerry has to decide first what his strategy is going to be in the election. And based on that, I think he'll make a judgment about who's going to be his vice presidential nominee.

If you had to bet it -- I know you never bet, Larry...

KING: Oh, no.

RATHER: If you had to bet it, I expect John Edwards would be -- Edwards would be the odds-on favorite, but not by much. There are some other people in the mix that are going to get a lot of consideration. And I would, for whatever it may be worth, I think that would include Senator Hillary Clinton of New York.

KING: Dan, come home safely. Thanks for this. We look forward to seeing you soon.

RATHER: Thank you, Larry.

KING: Dan Rather, my man on the scene in Baghdad. The anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News."

I'll be back in a couple of minutes to tell you about tomorrow night and another note on a very courageous young man. Don't go away.


KING: Thanks for joining us on this edition of "LARRY KING LIVE."

One note before I tell you about tomorrow. Some good news about young Mattie Stepanek. He suffered cardiac arrest, as you know, earlier this week, the American poet with multiple -- with muscular dystrophy. He's still in critical condition at Children's National Hospital Medical Center in D.C.

The good news is that scans indicate no brain damage and no swelling of the brain. If brain damage occurs, it's usually in the first 72 hours after cardiac arrest. We're past that point now.

Crossing a major hurdle, still fighting. The family continues to ask for your prayers. One of the great young men I know, Mattie Stepanek, hanging in there.

Aaron Brown is travelling in the region where we just spoke with Dan Rather so Wolf Blitzer will sit in on "NEWSNIGHT" and that's next on CNN.


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